Friday, 21 December 2018 16:45

Civil-rights attorney defends ballot work of Bladen County group

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RALEIGH — An attorney who represented the Bladen County Improvement Association during a 2016 investigation into potential absentee ballot voting misbehavior says the organization was cleared of any wrongdoing.  He hasn’t heard from investigators since.

The organization get funding from Democrats and was heavily involved in get-out-the-vote efforts for Democratic candidates in the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 midterm elections. The Bladen County Improvement Association is not subject to any law enforcement probes “as far as I know,” Irving Joyner told Carolina Journal Friday.

“I’ve never had any contact from anybody in the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which would handle the investigation, Joyner said. He is a law professor at N.C. Central University School of Law and a longtime NAACP voting rights activist who has conducted absentee ballot information sessions for the Bladen County Improvement Association.

Joyner also is serving as a lead counsel for the N.C. NAACP in its lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s recently enacted voter ID legislation.

“The Bladen County Improvement Association did not do anything that was illegal in their get-out-the-vote efforts, or in promoting the use of absentee ballots, or assisting people in casting their ballots,” Joyner said. “If there were any transgressions in procedure it was inadvertent.”

The N.C. State Board of Elections investigated reports of absentee mail-in ballot irregularities in 2016 involving the Bladen County Improvement Association and Leslie McCrae Dowless, a Republican operative. It forwarded its report to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement released its report on Wednesday as part of its current investigation into suspicion of widespread, coordinated absentee mail-in ballot shenanigans during the 2018 election cycle in Bladen and Robeson counties.

Dowless is the central figure in the current investigation for his role in helping Republican candidate Mark Harris get elected over Democrat Dan McCready in the 9th Congressional District. Harris has admitted hiring Dowless, but denies any knowledge of potential wrongdoing.

Investigators are trying to determine whether Dowless and a crew he hired were involved in unlawful ballot harvesting — the term for coordinated efforts to persuade voters to request absentee ballots, collect them from voters, check off the names of the candidates who hired them, and possibly throwing out ballots marked for the opposing candidate.

Unofficial counts show Harris won by 905 votes. But the state elections board has refused to certify the results of that contest and two local races, and scheduled a trial-like evidentiary hearing Jan. 11.

The 2016 report shows Dowless filed a complaint against the Bladen County Improvement Association, though Joyner said Dowless was merely a surrogate for attorneys working on then-Gov. Pat McCrory’s re-election campaign. The 2016 report noted Dowless was unfamiliar with parts of the complaint.

Dowless’ protest contended field workers for the Bladen County Improvement Association illegally wrote in the name of Franklin Graham on voters’ ballots for Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor, but failed to sign a certification line that they had assisted the voter. That would be a felony. Graham had failed to meet the filing deadline to appear on the ballot, and unsuccessfully opposed Dowless as a write-in candidate.

Ironically, information in Dowless’ complaint let investigators home in on his own questionable activities, which remain under investigation.

“After considering the legal arguments from attorneys representing both sides, as well as witness testimony, the State Board voted to dismiss the Dowless protest [against Bladen County Improvement Association],” the state elections board’s report said.

“In doing so, the board found that while improper assistance may have been provided by the individuals who wrote in the write-in candidate’s name on the ballot without signing the assistance certification, there was insufficient evidence to disqualify the affected ballots,” the report said.

Graham’s name was written in to 234 ballots. But investigators interviewed only six voters who were assisted with filling out their ballots, and just a handful of workers for the Bladen County Improvement Association. Interviews with workers were suspended after they said they Joyner was representing them. 

Joyner wouldn’t say whether he thought the Bladen County Improvement Association investigation ended prematurely.

“I don’t know. I can’t comment on that part of it,” he said. But the state elections board hearing did debate whether writing in the name of a candidate and allowing the voter to fill in the bubble by that name was illegal, he said.

Joyner said a staff employee from the State Board of Elections attended a meeting of the Bladen County Improvement Association before the 2016 general election informing its get-out-the-vote workers and those who would be witnessing absentee ballots how to legally conduct those activities.

“At no point during any of those instructions was it directed to them that they had to sign for people who assisted the voter unless that was someone who was different than the two people who witnessed the person signing the ballot,” Joyner said. 

The elections board employee said assistance requiring a signature occurred when someone marked and filled in a ballot for the person casting the vote, Joyner said.

“As we understood it, merely writing the name into the write-in slot would not constitute assistance in helping the voter mark his or her ballot,” Joyner said.